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Life (sciences) in context – I: On living beings’

Vasudev Menon

What is the living world made up of? In a series of two articles, Vasudev Menon, an Assistant Professor of Biology and Performing Arts (Theatre) at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune, contrasts the way two philosophical views answer this question. He opines that understanding these views would help students place what they study in the life sciences’ in context. This article is the first part of the two-part series.

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Today, teaching and learning in the natural sciences are taking an inquiry-driven’ turn. There is an expectation that students develop their understanding of the natural world, not through explanations handed down in textbooks, but through their own observations from guided investigations. 

As an ideal, and most teachers would agree, this is a welcome change and a step away from rote learning’, which has plagued education at large. However, one must be very cautious that this ideal does not slip into some disguised form of methodology’ training, in which case, there is a very real threat that what students learn may remain confined to the classrooms, devoid of social or cultural relevance, and disconnected from one’s everyday life. Students may continue to remain unconscious of why or what it is that they are actually studying and the contexts in which knowledge in the sciences is constructed. 

In a series of two articles, I aim to impress upon the reader an instance of placing biology within its historical and philosophical contextualities. These could serve as a reference for the epistemology[1]-driven learnings that this new generation of biologists will undertake. Let us take for instance, what appears at first sight, a rather simple question – What is the living world made of?

To seek answers to this, we turn to a domain in the philosophy of science, called metaphysics[2] and specifically, to ontology or, to be very strict, Formal ontology[3]. Ontologists of biology, who tackle the above question, often begin by categorising the various constituents of the living world. 

There are predominantly two super-categories used by ontologists for this purpose. One of these, which is relatively more popular and which we may be familiar with to the point of intuition, is to look at the living world as a collection of autonomous material objects; as living beings. For instance, we may consider the living world to be a collection of plants, animals and microbes, each in turn consisting of (a collection of) cells made up of the four categories of biological macro-molecules and so on. 

Another way of looking at bio-phenomena, one that seems to be finding traction with some contemporary philosophers of biology, is the processual view. The thrust is to perceive the biosphere as a state of constant change, as flux, as living becomings.

Crucially, temporally-measured processes are considered the fundamental components of the living world and spatially-measured material beings are mere consequences of processes in action[4]. For instance, and here too one should notice a hierarchy exists, a processualist might consider a cell as a collection of metabolic processes that generate the macromolecules; the cell, in turn, being an entity stabilized during the processes of cell division (and apoptosis) and so on. On a lighter note, a processualist might argue that it is a 90-minute football game that generates a football player and not the other way around, for without the game, the notion of the player is not very meaningful. 

Which of the two views helps us better to answer our question? To understand, let us first consider the materialist context of the living world, consisting of living beings.

The traditional way of conceiving a materially constructed reality, at least in Western scientific traditions, goes back all the way to the Grecian atomists[5]. They held that what appears real, can be deconstructed into its material physical constituents until you reach an indivisible point in space – the atom. 

They argued that the nature of more complex and constructed entities can in fact be reconstructed from atomic components, behaviour and interactions. Two foundational thinkers of the early Greek atomist schools were Democritus and Leucippus who lived around 500 BCE. Their ideas were later improved upon by Parmenides. Parmenides’ substance-based ontology can be seen influencing mainstream Grecian philosophers, especially Aristotle, who is considered the most foundational thinker of the life sciences. 

Aristotle considered all natural entities to be made of matter (substance) that had their own internal qualities and agencies (souls and essences). In fact, within Aristotelian thought, an entity is considered natural’ only if it possesses an agency of being that is internal to itself and dependent upon its material constitution. The smallest constituent substance that can assume a form (shape, structure, behaviour and so on) that will generate life-affirming properties would later be termed minima naturalia.

Aristotle would then go on to write his famous treatises such as Physics, Metaphysics and, more relevant to our discussion, The History of Animals and The Generation of Animals, all based on these foundational principles. In The History of Animals, Aristotle presents one of the earliest compendia of a systematic and comprehensive classification of the living world based on observable physical characteristics (this resonates with a term students of biology may be familiar with – phenotype!) and a methodological framework to study biological phenomena. It wouldn’t be remiss to consider the entire history of the development of concepts within the biosciences was in a way corroborating or reforming Aristotelian ideas[6].

This material part-whole construction of the biosphere finds its way into the two hierarchical models of organisation of the biosphere that most biology students are familiar with. These are the Linnaean Taxonomic Hierarchy and the Levels of Organisation (or the Layer Cake) model; the latter begins with the fundamental level of atoms, which make up molecules, then onto cells, organs, organ systems and so on till the ultimate unified level of the Biosphere (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Levels of organisation model of the living world. Source: Libre Texts Biology. Licence: CC-BY-SA. 

In the history of the development of biological thought, Aristotle’s conceptualisation of the material nature of the living world, including that of internal agencies would ultimately lead to the discovery of genetic materials, macromolecules and their functions, cellular organelles and the conceptualisation of cells as the building blocks of the life. This way of studying and imagining the biosphere would become the norm thereafter and would crystalise with the development of academic and research disciplines around them, such as molecular biology, cell biology, microbial biology, genetics, and more recently, systems and network biology, and so on. 

A crucial factor that would contribute to the idea of a materially constructed natural world would stem from the way we carry out scientific investigations, especially biology and the absolute need for sensory engagement with our object of study[7]. The entire lexicon used in the discussion of the biosphere was built around a material ontological perspective. A case in point is the word, Cell’, inspired by materially-enclosed physical housing units in prisons that Robert Hooke observed under his early microscope. 

Additionally, for a long time, the discipline of the life sciences borrowed fundamental operating principles (such as thermodynamics) from the other two mature natural sciences of Physics and Chemistry. For these two disciplines, at least historically speaking, the physical construction of the universe was a fundamental assumption. 

While there are tangible benefits of viewing the biosphere as a collection of objects, this might endanger biology students, especially those in their formative stage of learning, to slip into intuition. In our early stages of development, we learn to objectify as a cognitive habit to distinguish things. We then assign names to them. We abstract them from their contexts. Combining this with the conventionally reductionist approaches we take in both investigation and pedagogy, students face the real danger of missing the forest for the trees. 

In the next part, we will look into the birth of the view of our biosphere as a collection of processes, a view that aims to provide an explanation to some of the most essential features of the living world that the materialist reductionist approach often seems to miss – its dynamicity and diversity. 

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